The Bush administration on Dec. 7 granted new flexibility to states on how they track student progress under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) announcement was a response to stalled efforts in Congress to rewrite the five-year-old education law, and an acknowledgment that the law in its current form is flawed.

How progress is measured is critical to schools, because it determines whether they meet annual goals and avoid penalties.

The law currently requires schools to report, for example, how this year’s fifth-graders did compared to last year’s fifth-graders in math and reading. The goal is to get all kids working at their proper grade level by 2014.

Educators have been complaining, however, that the current method of measuring gains is imprecise, because it tracks the progress of groups of students but doesn’t monitor gains by individuals.

Educators also say the current method is unfair, because schools don’t get credit for making big gains if groups of students still fail to hit testing benchmarks. Educators say that can be a problem when looking at gains made by poor and minority students, who often start out well behind other kids.

The new way of measuring achievement, known as a “growth model,” requires schools to measure the progress of individual students over time. To do that, states must have systems for tracking student scores that also protect the students’ privacy.

The administration previously had experimented with the idea by approving eight plans that are being used under NCLB in North Carolina, Tennessee, Delaware, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Alaska, and Arizona. Ohio’s plan also has been approved but not yet implemented.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on Dec. 7 said she is expanding the pilot program, because many states have improved their efforts to collect and safeguard information about individual students.

Spellings said ED still will have to review and approve state plans for switching to a growth model.

Also, schools still will be expected to show that their students are on target toward being proficient in reading and math by 2014. They also will have to have goals for ensuring that gaps in achievement between white and minority students and low-income and wealthier students are closing.

Members of Congress support the idea of letting all states move toward the new method of measuring student gains.

Efforts to renew the overall NCLB law, however, have been bogged down over issues such as merit pay for teachers and whether schools should be judged based on test scores in subjects other than reading and math. A Senate insider says renewal of the law is not likely until next year at the earliest.


U.S. Department of Education